The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology

Issue 82




Another early garden pot

Hunters respect white magic

New body to promote endangered Roman wall

Leicester lion is rare import

Sea finally takes defences

Gold rings still unexplained

In Brief


Bodies - who wants to rebury old skeletons?
New sensitivities change attitudes to ancient human remains

Carrowmore - Tombs for hunters
Göran Burenhult describes excavations at Irish neolithic tombs

on the web

Recommended websites


Heritage Crisis?
Views and Responses

CBA news

Headlines from the CBA office.


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts

Issue 82 May/June 2005

on the web

Looking for archaeology

Caroline Wickham-Jones seeks reliable intelligence.

Quality control is a worry for internet archaeology. A specialist may find it relatively easy to assess the likely accuracy of information, but the internet is for all. Whether you live far from centres of population and big libraries, or whether you just like instant variety, it helps us to engage with the wider world.

Academic sites may or may not be glossy depending on the resources, interests and skills of the institutions. Excavation diaries, often using a simpler format with many pictures, have an immediacy and enthusiasm that is hard to beat, with gossip or personal contact that add to the colour. Many private sites are carefully researched and imaginatively presented: they do not need to bow to committees. Some sites, however, present zanier theories where facts can be more elusive; for some reason these are often brilliantly presented – they can be very persuasive.

If it is hard for the archaeologist to judge accuracy, how much harder is it for others? The first year student with a hangover and an essay deadline? The interested amateur wishing to find out about a pile of stones passed on holiday, or the retired grandparent following up something seen on television?

A recent MORI poll for the Common Information Environment, Trust in Online Resources, is reassuring: Almost a third of respondents had never used the web, but of those who did, 51% described it as their preferred information source. For finding out about an ancient artefact on the internet, their sample of some 2000 showed a marked preference for using the websites of institutions they had heard of, rather than those of unknown individuals.

Of course, "academic" sites are not always all they are cracked up to be. Some are rarely updated, on others content is poorly edited. Internet publication should not be an excuse for sloppy writing. In this respect SAIR (Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports, published by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland with the Council for British Archaeology and Historic Scotland:, provides a good role model. Personal experience confirms that material on SAIR is refereed and edited!

SAIR flags up an important problem for archaeology. The flexibility of the internet offers advantages for excavation publishing, with its many different specialists' reports and large amounts of data. The size (and price) of paper publications can be intimidating. Some are worried, however, that those who assess the academic quality of university departments do not value electronic publication. Hopefully, they can relax. Those who judge university departments have been quick to respond that though they still prefer paper they are happy to see internet publication as an effective method of dissemination. sair has a respectable catalogue of publications already and it is but one of many internet publications. The advantages and easy availability of carefully edited internet reports should allay fears.

Sites to search for archaeological intelligence

  • British Museum Compass -
    • All you need to know about over 5,000 artefacts in the collections, with authoritative detail and classy photos. Searches on all words in your string so can bring up some unusual results. Updated with new design February
  • Irish Archaeology -
    • Far from jazzy, but packed with useful data and links – some need updating – with more than enough to help explore Irish archaeology and beyond. Services to archaeologists an interesting idea
  • Keys to the Past -
    • Northumberland and Durham county council's guide to the archaeological secrets of their home counties. Simple presentation, includes a glossary and is both wide ranging and informative
  • Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland's Search Facilities -
    • Gateway to various complementary and easily accessed pages for information about specific sites or areas in Scotland. Great graphic searches on Canmap and Pastmap
  • Scran -
    • A "learning image service with 300,000 images, movies and sounds from museums, galleries, archives and the media". A fascinating world in which to loose yourself. Fee for full use

Northumberland rock art

Aron D Mazel introduces probably the most comprehensive regional rock art website in the world. The creators hope that it will assist conservation at fragile panels such as those at Dod Law and the Ringses.

Five or six thousand years ago a neolithic person picked up a stone tool and pecked out a cup in a sandstone outcrop, creating the first carved rock in what is now Northumberland. Exactly what informed this carver is lost in time, but we know that a tradition endured some 2,000 years into the early bronze age, bequeathing an astonishing number of panels. Over 1,050 are known. Double, perhaps more, may already have been lost through field clearances and quarrying; it is likely that many remain buried and yet more await discovery on the surface.

As elsewhere in Britain, this art shows a few abstract motifs behind varied designs. The primary element is a small round hollow or cup, which can be on its own; with others, randomly scattered or grouped in patterns (eg lines, rosettes or dominos); or part of a more complex design with grooves. Grooves usually occur as one or two concentric rings around a cup, but occasionally they emerge from the central cup and cross surrounding rings, sometimes linking motifs.

Charles Langlands first recognised the antiquity of Northumberland rock art in the 1820s, after visiting what we now know as Old Bewick 1a. Since then study has seen three main phases of activity: 1850s to 1880s, the 1930s and since the 1980s. Today's, the most sustained, is personified by Stan Beckensall, whose first exposure to the art was also at Old Bewick, in the mid 1960s. He has recorded carvings throughout northern Britain, focussing on Northumberland, where he lives. Beckensall reveals his passion and knowledge with a substantial archive of life-size rubbings, drawings, photos, descriptive notes and numerous publications.

Geoff Bailey, then of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, received an Arts and Humanities Research Board resource enhancement grant to place the archive on the internet. The project ran from July 2002 to December 2004. Our challenge was to produce a website that would be accessible and meaningful to a range of audiences, from rock art researchers to schoolchildren.

Fieldwork, with Beckensall's active participation, began with visits to some 720 panels. We recognised that global positioning system (GPS) units and digital photography would improve location data and allow substantially more photos for moderate cost, and return visits were made to 560 panels to collect data on setting, surface, panel type, art, and management and conservation. We located 90% of known panels still in the countryside, and logged many new ones. Beyond all expectations, the number in Northumberland grew from 790 to 1,060.

Office work concentrated on three areas: cataloguing and scanning thousands of line drawings and photos, some dating from the mid 1970s; inputting Beckensall's archive, and data collected during the project fieldwork, into a purpose-built interactive database, created by Horacio Ayestaran, who implemented the website; and developing an interactive zone for the website, with graphic design by Jess Kemp and Marc Johnstone of Heritage Media.

Northumberland Rock Art: Web Access to the Beckensall Archive,, believed to be the world's most comprehensive regional rock art website, was launched in January. There was local, national, and international media coverage, resulting in over two million hits in the first fortnight. Features include:

  • Entry for every known carved panel, with data on location, archaeology, environment and management. These entries are supported by some 6,000 images, including 360° bubbleworld photos of 46 panels in their settings
  • Browse facility to access all panels according to parish, map, panel type, location, access (with suitability for wheelchairs), image type and art motifs
  • Simple and advanced interactive search facilities, on a combination of criteria that include art motifs
  • Interactive zone with learning journeys about the rock art; a tribute to Beckensall; video and audio clips; recommended visits; games, photo galleries, bibliography and more.

The website provides unparalleled virtual access to Northumberland's rock art. It also encourages countryside visits, and will set the basis for future research and management.

Aron Mazel is lecturer at the International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies, University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

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